Friday 7 November 2014

Mozart and Bach at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea

Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Bach Magnificat, Mozart Requiem; The Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the Wren Players, William Vann; Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 5 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Two masterpieces of German sacred music sung in vital performances

The Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, conductor William Vann were joined by the period instrument ensemble the Wren Players to perform Mozart's Requiem and Bach's Magnificat in the chapel of the Royal Hospital on 5 November 2014 as part of the Royal Hospital Chelsea's Autumn 2014 concert series.

William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea
William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea
We often lose sight of the fact that both Bach and Mozart's work's were written for the same Lutheran tradition which used relatively small forces for the performance of works we nowadays think of as choral classics. Whilst some people still dispute whether Bach's major works were performed with one singer to a part (as music in the Lutheran tradition often was), there is no doubt that Bach would have regarded the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea's provision of 16 professional singers (4 of each voice type) as truly lavish. What we can sometimes forget, however, is that the church for which Mozart's Requiem was commissioned had a similar performance provision so that as the Dunedin Consort has shown on their recent recording, the Mozart Requiem as originally conceived was vastly different from the large scale oratorio-like piece we sometimes experience.

Vann and his performers reflected this in their performances. Both the Bach and the Mozart were lithe and vital without feeling undernourished. The singers bringing both power and flexibility to the vocal lines, as well as a superb sense of blend. At times their singing and the vibrant playing from the instruments belied the small forces whilst giving a litheness and flexibility to the whole performance.
The singers of the choir are all professional singers with a variety of backgrounds, we saw two of them in the ensemble at Grange Park Opera this summer whilst many sing in other professional choirs and ensembles such as Stile Antico and Chapelle du Roi. The resulting sound has great power, but also focus and blend perhaps reflecting the singers consort singing experience. In both works, solos were taken from the members of the choir and soloists are listed at the foot of this article.

Bach's Magnificat was performed in the later D major version without the Christmas interludes. The opening chorus was vividly done with great elan. The vibrant alto solo in Et exultavit and shapely soprano solo in Quia respexit, with a lovely oboe solo, were followed by some superbly characterful (and accurate) chorus passagework in Omnes generationes. A rather contained bass solo in Quia fecit mihi magna was succeeded by a mellifluous counter-tenor, tenor duet on Et misericordia. Fecit potentiam had rather a nice swagger to it with some crisp articulation from chorus, and Deposuit potentes benefited from a wonderful bravura solo from the tenor. Esurientes implevit bonis was another counter-tenor solo, flexible and with a lovely even tone. The three female soloists in Suscepit Israel produced a fine grained yet spine tingling blending of Bach's suspensions. The final chorus returned to the opening elan, to complete what was a fine and highly involving performance.

18th century Bassett Horn
18th century Bassett Horn
of the type played at
the concert
Mozart's Requiem performed with just 16 singers, five strings, two basset horns, two bassoons and three trombones gave a very different, and rather welcome balance to the music. I rather prefer smaller scale versions of this work because it enables the warmly mellifluous but not overly loud tones of the basset horns to tell in greater depth adding a different colour to the textures. We were sitting quite close to the instrumental ensemble and the two ladies behind us were clearly fascinated by the period basset horns (see illustration to the left) which looked rather unusual and with their crooked bodies rather different to modern ones.

Another bonus is that the smaller, narrow bore period trombones give a finer grained sound and blend better with the voices, as they are meant to. Mozart's trombone parts essentially reflect another Lutheran tradition of having vocal lines supported by trombones. Apart from the solo moments (such as the Tuba Mirum) you could lose the trombone parts without affecting the harmony at all.

Again soloists were taken from the choir so that the Introit included a poised and vibrant soprano solo. The choral sound was fluid and flexible and throughout the Requiem the singers sense of legato was very noticeable (so much so that I thought that words were sometimes being sacrificed).

But the firmly even choral sound could have vigour too, as was shown in the opening of the Dies Irae. We had a fabulously focussed and dark-toned bass solo and trombone solo in the Tuba mirum whilst the solo ensemble was launched very creditably with the tenor negotiating the trick opening very neatly. Mozart often writes for his soloists as an ensemble, a sort of semi-chorus, so that the singers experience in consorts and small choirs came to the fore here. But though we had a sense of blend, and feeling that all four listened, there was also character to the voices.  The orchestral rhythms in the Rex tremendae were crisply articulated, complementing the full, smooth choral blend. The Recordare flowed nicely with a sense of interweaving lines from singers and instruments. Confutatis maledictus brought vigour and control, with some lovely poised singing from the chorus sopranos. Lacrimosa dies illa finished the Sequenz with a sense of quiet flow and some fabulous climaxes.

The Offertorium was nicely vital with some lively detail and a lovely lilt to the Hostias. Whilst the Sanctus was surprisingly grand and large scale, but the contrasting Benedictus brought poise and a sense of great beauty. This concluded with the lovely Agnus Dei.

The work was performed in the traditional completion by Mozart's pupil Sussmayr which, for all its solecisms in the details, is still genuinely of Mozart's time. The seats in the chapel are not comfortable and an hour is a long sit, but it never dragged thanks to the wonderfully involving performance from all.

Bach Magnificat
   Et exsultavit - Rosie Clifford
   Quia respexit - Eloise Irving
   Quia fecit - Thomas Stoddart
   Et misericordia - Roderick Morris, William Petter
   Deposuit - Edward Hughes
   EsurientesRoderick Morris
   Suscepit - Katy Hill, Helen Ashby, Emma Ashby.

Mozart - Requiem
   Introit and Lux aeterna: Leah Jackson
   Tuba MirumLeah Jackson, Roderick Morris, Edward Hughes, Thomas Flint
   Recordare: Eloise Irving, Roderick Morris, Edward Hughes, Adrian Horsewood.
   Benedictus: Katy Hill, Rosemary Clifford, Benedict Hymas, Thomas Stoddart.
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